(Bloomberg) -- The Chinese appliances and Iranian-assembled cars belong to the past. The free apartments are fewer and farther between. Even in the charity food boxes, canned tuna has given way to beans.
The great Venezuelan handout machine is grinding to a halt just when President Nicolas Maduro needs it most. Ahead of the May 20 election, the system that enticed needy voters for almost two decades is breaking down as the government fails to stem a decline in oil production that is exacerbating the worst economic crisis in the country’s history.
The vote’s outcome is widely presumed to be a foregone conclusion as opponents boycott it and international authorities say it is rigged in Maduro’s favor. But as the president cements his socialist autocracy, his giveaway goodies show how far the country has fallen. They are cheaper, lighter and of poorer quality than those Maduro’s late mentor, Hugo Chavez, granted during the petro-fat 2000s. He has distributed Fatherland Cards, linked to accounts into which the government dribbles paltry sums of money.
“There is no comparison between Chavez and Maduro, none,” said Gladys Teran, a 62-year-old retired saleswoman. “Chavez provided low and payable loans for refrigerators, air conditioners and even apartments. Now I only know of a bus granted by Maduro to a community near my house. And bonuses. But I prefer a loan than a bonus. Last one I received, I spent it on a dozen eggs.”
Chavez started myriad programs catering to everyone from farmers to teenage mothers, school dropouts, the blind and even abandoned pets. He announced them -- and re-announced them -- with a flourish around each of his four presidential elections, all of which he won handily.
“Most were more like temporary government plans than real social programs,” said Desire Gonzalez, analyst of government social programs for Transparency International Venezuela. “Months before election time, many of them were reactivated and used as electoral campaign strategy.”
Chavez, an inescapable presence in the nation even five years after his death, could pop up on all television channels and broadcast a Sunday show that could stretch to a marathon eight hours. A month before the 2012 election, he took viewers on a tour of apartments he was handing out in Barinas, his home state. The camera panned slowly over corridors, bedrooms and even the shiny new toilet. Before the 2010 parliamentary elections, the president went to the industrial city of Maracay to publicize deep discounts for cars assembled by a joint Iranian-Venezuelan venture. Citizens lined up for days to register for them.
But as state oil producer PDVSA has fallen into a shambles, many of the social programs -- there were 37 of them -- have been cut back or disappeared. During his last presidential campaign before his death, Chavez gave out about 200,000 homes in a single year, official data show. This year, Maduro has handed out almost 80,000, but many come from unfinished government projects his predecessor started eight years ago.
“With the oil boom behind us, it’s more complicated for the government to keep up this network of submission,” said Felix Seijas, director of the Delphos polling agency. “It’s not as competitive and powerful as it was in the past.”
Rather than announcing air conditioners, taxi fleets, or new schools, Maduro has focused on deliveries of imported food, called CLAP boxes. They’re named for the Spanish acronym of the local government organizations that supply them -- their central command is headed by an official sanctioned by the U.S. as a narcotics trafficker. The program, which started in 2016, was meant to be a temporary measure until “victory in the economic war” was assured.
Initially arriving in plastic bags, the provisions were handed out by the government’s neighborhood committees in poor areas for a nominal cost. They included locally made products such as chicken, eggs, pasta, oil, corn and wheat flour and canned tuna.
In contrast, this month’s delivery had many fewer products than the first packages, said recipient Osiris Rojas. Instead of 2 kilograms of rice or sugar, there was one. There was no tuna or canned beef.
Edison Arciniegas, a social-science researcher at the Central University of Venezuela, said the boxes have dropped to 11 kilograms from 16 kilograms since January. He said the election edition of the CLAP boxes is currently supplying about half the nation’s food requirements.
Quality is in question, too. A study from the Central University of Venezuela found that the powdered milk -- brought from outside the nation, like much Venezuelan food -- is low on protein and doesn’t meet the minimum nutritional requirement for children.
“The imported milk satisfies the hunger, but does not nourish adequately. The amount of calories is average, but most comes from carbohydrates and not protein and fat,” Pablo Hernandez, a nutritionist at the school, told the Venezuelan website Armando.info.
Critics say the handouts of staples have become a means of control.
“The purpose has been to slowly destroy private production to turn the state into the sole provider and subdue the people,” said Seijas, the pollster.
The government-issued Fatherland Card, which functions like a debit card, is required to receive the CLAP box. Maduro has claimed that the 16 million holders will receive new houses and cash through them, though the bonuses don’t pace raging hyperinflation. On his own broadcasts, cheering crowds of pregnant women or the elderly wave their cards to the camera.
“I have a very good reward for those exercising their political right to support the sovereignty, independence and democracy of Venezuela,” he said on television Thursday. “It is giving and giving, love is paid with love.”
But such love comes at a steep cost, Seijas said: “With the oil boom behind us, it’s more complicated for the government to keep up this network of submission.”
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